Thursday, October 23, 2014

Rand Steiger visits the Center next week

The Center is excited to count composer, conductor, and pedagogue Rand Steiger among its visiting artists this year.  This Wednesday (October 29), Steiger will present the next lecture in the Visiting Lecture Series, bringing his unique artistic perspective to UB.

Steiger is the chair of the Music Department at UC San Diego, where has taught composition since 1987.  Before that, he served on the faculty at the California Institute of the Arts.  In 2009, he switched coasts temporarily to serve as a Visiting Professor at Harvard University.

Well known for his computer-music research, much of Steiger's compositional work features the interfacing of orchestral instruments with real-time digital signal processing.  In addition, his works often use electronics to create a quasi-spectral blend of just and equal temperaments, an an effort to explore "the delicate perceptual cusp between a harmony and a timbre that occurs when tones are precisely tuned."  Steiger has held several residencies at IRCAM, and frequently collaborates with Miller Puckette, the author of the Max/MSP and Pure Date programming environments and one of the leading computer music researchers of his generation.

Recently, Steiger's work has taken on an increasingly ecological perspective.  In an interview promoting his residency with Calit2, the composer describes the ways in which these ideas effect his process:
A lot of my pieces are really more abstract, just about the notes, the sounds, and the performers playing them.  But in a lot of my larger works, I’ve looked for inspiration outside of music, in particular from the natural world.  The first time I did that in a significant way was in The Burgess Shale (1994), an orchestral work for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in which I drew on research about the Burgess Shale fossils—these amazing fossils that revealed previously unknown lifeforms.  […]  The piece was a kind of tone poem that had different sections that referred to these different creatures and the ways they might have interacted.
Indeed, several of Steiger's works share this quality of evoking different "lifeforms".  In a recent concert review, The New York Times referred to his piece Concatenation (2012) and the ways it evokes the sounds of "something growing and decaying; someone seeking or fleeing proximity with another; the dogged or tender effort to sustain something beyond its natural life span."  The same article describes 2013's Template for Improvising Trumpeter and Ensemble as a "virtual zoo of electronically distorted and animated sounds."

In other works, this influence of natural science comes from a more decidedly environmental outlook.  For instance, 2011's Menacing Plumes for chamber ensemble and electronics a quasi-programmatic piece which takes inspiration from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the "strange, unworldly creatures that thrive in the ocean's depths."  Steiger elaborates on the relationship between his environmental concerns and his compositional work:
It’s more of a poetic and free-associative connection.  I’m not trying to directly advocate for some kind of point of view about the environment or trying to take a musico-political approach to the subject.  More generally, I’m just embracing the images and the concerns that I have and then free-associating with musical thinking and allowing it to affect the music, and then the outcome of that is somewhat unpredictable.  But there have been times in some of my pieces where I’ve drawn on the environment for structural models.
For the latter, the composer is referring to 2002's Ecosphere for large chamber ensemble and electronics, which draws on geographer Robert Bailey's classification of terrestrial ecosystems for a formal model.  The piece—recently recorded by Ensemble Intercontemporain—consists of sixteen sections based on these ecosystems, taking their temporal proportions from the percentage of the Earth that each system inhabits—with additional data about each region's climate (e.g., temperature and precipitation) taken into consideration in the creation of new musical terrains.  "It’s a way of challenging myself to do things musically that I wouldn’t do otherwise, and to take my work in a new direction."

While he has recently been focusing all his attention on composing, Steiger is well-known in the contemporary music world as a skilled conductor.  As the founding artistic director of the California EAR Unit, Steiger premiered and commissioned works by many notable composers—including Elliott Carter and Louis Andriessen, as well as former UB composers Morton Feldman and Lejaren Hiller—gaining a reputation for creating dynamic programs which often juxtaposed strikingly different works (e.g., playing Donald Martino's Noturno and Morton Subotnick's Key to Songs alongside Stockhausen's Stimmung).  In the early 2000's, Steiger lead a series of critically acclaimed concerts with Ensemble Sospeso in New York City.  In addition, he has conducted groups such as the Arditti Quartet, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and New York New Music Ensemble, presenting numerous world, New York, and California premiere performances by composers such as Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez, Brian Ferneyhough, Luigi Nono, Terry Riley, and Giacinto Scelsi.

We're looking forward to hearing Steiger's presentation, and getting to learn more about him and his music!

—Ethan Hayden

Rand Steiger
Wednesday, October 29, 2014
352 Baird Hall